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If Wars Are Still Thinkable

October 04, 1987|James Adams | James Adams, defense correspondent for the London Sunday Times, is the author of "Secret Armies," to be published in spring.

LONDON — The new term in warfare is "low-intensity conflict." Both the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency are currently working on a strategy for the United States to fight overseas in such wars.

Completion of these secret studies later this year will mark a fundamental rethinking of America's war-fighting capabilities. The consequences will be important; America will have plans in place to intervene, unilaterally, in operations akin to the invasion of Grenada or actions of a longer duration.

Low-intensity conflict is a growing form of international geopolitics. Last year there were 43 such wars involving 45 of the world's 164 nations. These conflicts have killed more than five million people.

Just as the arrival of the tank saw the elimination of the cavalry as an effective weapon of war, so nuclear weapons have changed the options available to military and political strategists for prosecuting modern warfare.

Yet non-nuclear wars continue among those nations that do not possess nuclear weapons (Iran and Iraq for example), but are increasingly unlikely between those powers that have nuclear arsenals, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union.

The dangers of stepping over the nuclear trip wire are recognized by both superpowers. In every crisis since World War II that could have escalated to a confrontation between the superpowers, both sides have taken positive steps to reduce tension and avoid conflict. Still, under the Reagan Administration, there has been a massive increase in defense spending across the board, not only for major weaponry but for an unprecedented buildup of those forces specifically designed to fight low-intensity wars--thinking big about small conflicts.

In 1982 the budget for special operations forces such as the Rangers and the Green Berets was $7.5 million for 4,300 men. By 1986, that figure had increased to $45 million for 9,200 men and by 1990 will peak at $500 million for 11,200 men. At the same time, new command structures have been authorized by Congress, establishing the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. A new Assistant Secretary of Defense for Low-Intensity Conflict has been authorized but not yet appointed.

Plans already exist for committing these Special Operations Forces in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or in joint operations outside the NATO area. What has been lacking until now is a strategy for unilateral action, something that, since Vietnam, has been anathema to many politicians and members of the military.

In the operations that have taken place during the Reagan Administration the United States has displayed little understanding of the political and military requirements of unconventional warfare.

Although substantial numbers of U.S. troops have not yet been employed, the two key tests of U.S. capability have been El Salvador and Nicaragua. In both, regardless of political differences, the U.S. military has performed poorly.

In El Salvador, 55 Green Berets plus up to 150 CIA counterinsurgency specialists have been training the Salvadoran military to fight left-wing guerrillas for more than five years. The Reagan Administration argues that those guerrillas are armed and supported by neighboring Nicaragua. In the first stages of deployment, U.S. Mobile Training Teams attempted to train the 25,000-strong Salvadoran Army to fight a conventional war. Using the classic American prescription for all combat, they decided to meet force with greater force, with massive artillery barrages and air bombings.

The Army was rapidly increased in size although morale remained poor. Many of the troops were unwilling to leave the security of their barracks unless ordered out on a massive combined arms sweep through an area thought to be occupied by guerrillas. Such sweeps achieved little other than to alienate the local population whose crops and villages were often destroyed by the government forces. One Green Beret involved in the training likened the strategy to "putting your fist into a bucket of water: You put your fist in, twirl it around and when you'd withdrawn it there was no evidence that you'd ever been there."

The Green Berets then changed their training method and that, combined with the election of a democratic government in El Salvador, helped place the guerrillas on the defensive. Temporary military success, however, was not matched on the political front; President Jose Napoleon Duarte has not been able to deliver on promised land and military reforms. This has undermined the gains made by more sophisticated counterinsurgency policy; political failures continue to provide both useful propaganda and recruits for the guerrillas.

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